Why Is Ted Cruz, in Texas, Just Barely Ahead of Beto O'Rourke?

Yes, the president is unpopular. But there's more to it than that.

All of a sudden, Ted Cruz is in a fight for his life.

New polling shows the Texas senator within the margin of error against his dynamic rival, El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke. This is a surprising turnabout in a race for what should have been a safe seat. It’s worth taking a minute to talk about why.

First, enjoy the moment. No one, and I mean no one, likes Ted Cruz. As Al Franken once said, he’s the guy who microwaves fish for lunch. (His own daughter famously recoiled when he tried kissing her.) I suspect his constituents elected him in 2012 not so much because they thought it was a good idea but because voting for a Democrat in a year Barack Obama won reelection was unthinkable. (Voting for a Democrat, period, was probably unthinkable; Cruz is truly an affirmative-action senator.)

Don’t take my word for it.

Mick Mulvaney, the federal government’s budget director, cautioned donors over the weekend. Republicans face longer odds of holding the Senate than they had previously thought. Clearly referring to Cruz, Mulvaney said: “There’s a very real possibility we will win a race for Senate in Florida and lose a race in Texas for Senate, O.K.? I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s a possibility. How likable is a candidate? That still counts.”

So take a moment to let the Schadenfreude wash over you like a cool mountain stream. If anyone deserves getting a run for his money, it’s a smirking toad of a man like Cruz.

But why does polling show him just barely ahead?

On the one hand, Beto O’Rourke is running one hell of a campaign, almost entirely positive, drawing comparisons to a young Barack Obama. He’s not talking about Donald Trump but he doesn’t need to given the president’s approval in Texas has dropped 15 or so points since his inauguration. This is not to say Trump is underwater. He’s just not as popular, providing a small opening for a long-shot Democrat.

(The Editorial Board’s forecaster, Chris Luongo, says: “O’Rourke has been consistently moving up in the polls, but Cruz is definitely the favorite. O’Rourke’s path to victory is difficult. He would really have to run up the score in urban/suburban areas and not get as slaughtered in rural areas. He needs a gigantic El Paso margin, for instance.”)

On the other hand, Ted Cruz may be a victim of his brief success.

No one other than Trump was on the bleeding edge of birther conspiracy more than Cruz. While Trump was more ham-handed, Cruz was a performance artist, tapping into all the ways Barack Obama was different from “natural-born citizens” and “real Americans.” Cruz, you’ll recall, was the leading immigration hardliner in the Senate during the Obama years, long before Trump came along. He vowed to fight “anchor babies” and to repeal “birthright citizenship.” If anyone can be credited with torpedoing the last serious attempt at immigration reform, it was Ted Cruz.

Then came the 2016 GOP primaries. That’s when Rafael Edward Cruz, born in Canada to a Cuban father and American mother, found himself on the receiving end. Trump blasted the senator for threatening the party’s chances of winning the White House. "Republicans are going to have to ask themselves the question: 'Do we want a candidate who could be tied up in court for two years?' That'd be a big problem," he said. CNN, of course, gave Trump all the time he needed to make his case.

Once Trump opened that door, anyone who already disliked Cruz—which, remember, includes virtually everyone—piled on. The liberal commentariat had a field day. So did the late John McCain and stalwarts who tried but failed thanks to Cruz to reform US immigration law. Social media was awash in headlines asking if Cruz were “natural-born” and eligible to be president should he win. (Answer: he is. Like Obama, his mother is a citizen. By common law and by statute, that makes Cruz a citizen.)

Ted Cruz’s greatest asset became his greatest liability.

Yes, Beto O’Rourke is running a hell of a campaign. Yes, the president’s current unpopularity is pulling Cruz downward. But Cruz invested everything he had into getting “real Americans” to think he was more American than apple pie and the Battle of the Alamo. Getting gored by the No. 1 birther was a wound that never healed.

To diehard conservatives, Ted Cruz can’t hold a candle to Trump. To more moderate Republicans, he’s not as strong as he once appeared to be, a fading light. To the more liberal, Trump revealed Cruz’s true nature as an opportunist, and a fraud.

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